Reaction to "Publishing Heavyweights Stand by Joseph Boyden" in Jan. 6th Globe and Mail

January 17, 2017

I cannot speak for the publishing industry, I definitely cannot speak to First Nations issues with regard to Joseph Boyden, but I can speak as a member of the CanLit community. In fact it feels like cowardice not to.

I was hiking with a friend and our dogs, talking about how disheartened and disillusioned I felt after reading the article in Friday, January 6th’s Globe and Mail, ‘Amid Heritage Controversy Publishing Heavyweights Stand by Joseph Boyden’, outlining how everyone contacted in the publishing establishment with the exception of Heather Reisman who had no comment, were making blanket statements of support. I thought if I, a privileged, upper middleclass, white female writer starting to veer off the cliff of middle age can’t take the risk to speak, who can. And yet, it feels risky.

I really wish CanLit spokespeople would stop making public statements of support for authors involved in difficult conflicts. While it is understandable that people feel loyalty, admiration, concern, and affection for their friends and colleagues, the subtext of these statements is that the perceptions and experiences on the other side of the conflicts are somehow less valid, frivolous, disingenuous, or misguided. As someone tweeted several days ago (I can no longer find it in the threads), and I’m paraphrasing, we all have friends who fuck up, and of course they are still our friends. In fact, we humans screw up all the time. If the results are not irrevocable, it’s the corrections that matter.

Public statements from people who are (though they may not necessarily feel like they are) the gatekeepers of our small industry, have a “chilling” effect both now and in the future on people, particularly young or unestablished writers, who may have complaints to make against “beloved literary icons” or “the most popular and beloved writers”.

As writers we know that where human beings are concerned there is always more than one truth. When part of your discipline is putting yourself in the shoes of every character in a situation, you understand that each has their story and each story has its truth. In a family, for example, every child will have a different version of an event, and every version will have an emotional truth for that person. CanLit spokespeople are not speaking from that consciousness when they issue blanket statements of support, statements that read like ad copy on book jackets or blurbs. Surely more nuanced responses are possible, responses that acknowledge the complexity of moral and cultural conflicts.

I respect what Ryan McMahon, an Ojibway writer and comedian, said on CBC’s The National’s Sunday Panel “Taking on an Identity”: “Had the publishers and the festivals said, ‘This is a fascinating, valuable conversation adding to the discourse in the country right now, one that we’re listening to closely and we hear you, however we accept him (Joseph Boyden) as an artist and a writer and a human being most importantly,’ that would be okay by me, but to speak over the indigenous community’s concerns over the issue is troubling.”

We are wordsmiths, in the business of promoting as much clarity as is within our reach at any given time. Probably nobody in Canadian publishing feels particularly powerful in an environment where a tsunami of content is arriving every minute via the internet and the competition for people’s leisure time is fiercer than ever, but the CanLit establishment does have great influence over writers’ careers in this country, particularly unestablished ones. Public pronouncements by the gatekeepers of our national industry, where there is at most one degree of separation, create an unnecessary dynamic of in-group, out-group.

It is understandable when friends are criticized in public to want to be loyal and stand with them, but in the small world of Canadian Literature, when many of those people are gatekeepers of the industry, it is problematic.